What's the wildest dream for your team this NCAA tournament? What's its darkest nightmare? We plot out best-case scenarios and worst-case scenarios for every team in the Big Dance.
No. 1 FLORIDA
Best Case: Wichita State may be undefeated, but Florida is undefeated*. The 32-2 Gators have not lost with their full roster available, and have not lost at all since December, and will not lose again until sometime in the 2014-15 season. Throwback Florida becomes the first team with four senior starters to win the national title since Indiana in 1976 – yes, really. Casey Prather slashes, Patric Young bangs, Scottie Wilbekin directs and the capable supporting cast capably supports. After breezing through two games in Orlando, Billy Donovan has to beat old assistant Shaka Smart in the round of 16. Then, after three straight losses in the Elite Eight, Gators break through by beating Syracuse to reach the Final Four. After slaying Michigan State in the semifinals, Donovan must defeat his former coach and boss, Rick Pitino, to win the title. With Tim Tebow Tebowing in the stands during a tense game, Gators win on a Wilbekin step-back 3. Donovan earns his third ring before the age of 50, says he is very-very proud to coach a very-very committed group to victory over a man he is very-very close to. Athletic director Jeremy Foley decides to put his best coach in charge of the floundering football program, too. New Director of Defensive Intensity Will Muschamp does not object.
Worst Case: Did the burden of a three-month winning streak start to weigh on the Gators at the end of the SEC title game, as they scored seven points in the final 11 minutes, went 7-17 at the line and nearly blew a 15-point lead? Turns out it did. Against a Pittsburgh team that matches up well and played in a far tougher league, Florida starts slowly and is unable to launch its customary second-half surge. Locked in a tie game in the final seconds, Wilbekin – who comes into the tourney 1-6 at the foul line over his last three games – clangs a front-end free throw. Pitt races to the other end and scores the winning basket. After 21 straight SEC wins, Florida is two-and-through in the NCAAs. The 2006-07 Gator Boys continue to recede into the distance. Long Island boy Donovan, very-very frustrated by the incurable fan apathy, heeds Phil Jackson’s call to come home and coach the Knicks. Foley demotes Muschamp anyway after a shaky spring game, replacing him with Gene Chizik.
No. 16 ALBANY
Best Case: If the 18-14 Great Danes can take down the top two seeds in the America East tournament, is there anything they cannot do? Well, they cannot beat Florida. But they can beat Mount St. Mary’s in the play-in round, and handily. In his fourth NCAA tournament, Will Brown outcoaches young Mountaineers counterpart Jamion Christian in Dayton – then it’s on to Orlando and a date with the Gators. After a decent half, Albany is put away in the final 20 minutes – but the team still has time to make it to Disney World that night. Tower of Terror and Space Mountain help the Danes transition into the offseason.
Worst Case: Team that has not won more than three games in a row all year isn’t going to start now. Great Danes play like dogs against Mount St. Mary’s, turning the ball over constantly and struggling to get high-percentage shots. Albany is the first team out of the tournament, which means there is no trip to Orlando, no Tower of Terror and no Space Mountain. After a fluke America East tourney run, it’s back to the tundra of upstate New York.
No. 8 COLORADO
Best Case: Arguably the most resilient team in the country, the Buffaloes continue to stay competitive since losing their best player, guard Spencer Dinwiddie, to injury in mid-January. Playing tenacious defense without fouling, Tad Boyle’s team exasperates Pittsburgh in an opening victory. After showing signs of wear late in the season, big man Josh Scott is rejuvenated and posts a double-double. Askia Booker, 2 for his last 20 from 3-point range, relocates his shot. Pot heads on Pearl Street light up to celebrate the Buffs. Colorado plays Florida off its feet in the round of 32, creating a spasm of office-pool panic nationwide, before losing at the end. Spring snowstorm leaves fresh powder on the ski slopes when the Buffaloes return home.
Worst Case: Buffaloes have basically treaded water without Dinwiddie, eking out three close wins in their last seven games. Just scraping by won’t do it against Pittsburgh, which is playing better basketball. With an 11:40 am MT tip after cross-country travel, Colorado comes out flat and falls way behind. Boyle tries the Dan Hawkins, “It ain’t intramurals!” motivational speech at halftime, to little avail. The struggle to catch up is unsuccessful, and the Buffs are among the first teams evicted from the main bracket. Pot heads on Pearl Street light up to commiserate with the Buffs. Spring snowstorm never comes and the skiing is lousy.
No. 9 PITTSBURGH
Best Case: Panthers relocated something at Clemson and then in the ACC tournament in Greensboro and enter the Big Dance with renewed confidence. Team that slapped a 25-8 opening run on North Carolina does the same to Colorado, with Lamar Patterson hurting the Buffaloes from 3-point range. Matched up with Florida in the round of 32, Jamie Dixon has his finest NCAA tourney moment. Pitt springs the upset on a Talib Zanna putback, and suddenly the Panthers are on their way to the Sweet 16 in Memphis. They beat UCLA there and avenge two close losses (including the gut punch at home) to Syracuse. Finally, Pitt has broken through and made the Final Four with one of its least-heralded teams. Steelers draft speculation is temporarily bumped below the fold in the papers. Pitt loses in national semifinal to Michigan State, but who cares? The first year in the ACC winds up being the school’s best year of basketball since 1957.
Worst Case: This is Jamie Dixon, and this is the NCAA tournament. Those two things go together like Bruce Pearl and backyard barbecues – it’s bound to end badly. Dixon can’t win when his team is a high seed, so he’s not going to start winning now as a No. 9 seed. Panthers haven’t defeated a higher-seeded team since 1981 – not a misprint – and the streak continues with a frustrating loss to Colorado. Panthers get impatient against resolute Buffaloes defense, take too many 3s and miss the vast majority of them. Quick ouster means Pittsburgh never bothers to stop the Steelers draft and free-agency dialog long enough to pay attention.
No. 5 VCU
Best Case: Havoc makes a powerful return to March Madness, as the Rams press and disrupt their way back to the Final Four. Stephen F. Austin is swarmed in the opener, and surprise winner Tulsa is dismissed in the round of 32. After the Atlantic-10 puts five in the round of 32, Shaka Smart asks Mike Krzyzewski how he likes the league now. In Memphis for the Sweet 16, Smart gets the better of old boss Billy Donovan and Florida in a major upset. Then VCU re-enacts its greatest moment by once again taking down Kansas in a regional final. Rams have no answer for Michigan State in Dallas, but everyone is rewarded by three weekends with the VCU band. Second Final Four run cements Smart as the nation’s top college coach under 40, but he remains unwilling to jump at just any job and stays put in Richmond.
Worst Case: Havoc style doesn’t unnerve Stephen F. Austin, which refused to be goaded into racehorse basketball by Southland Conference brethren Northwestern State (the fastest-paced team in the country, per Ken Pomeroy). VCU traps and pressure does not produce turnovers – it produces Lumberjacks layups. And a VCU offense that struggles to produce quality shots inside the arc breaks down for long scoreless stretches. Rams shoot 32 percent and are dismissed from the tourney, unfortunately taking their band with them. Krzyzewski sees score and nods smugly. Amid some sniping about his playing style, Smart decides he’s done all he can in Richmond and moves on. After all the work it took to get into the A-10, program at risk of major backslide.
No. 12 STEPHEN F. AUSTIN
Best Case: The best team you’ve never seen is ready for its big moment. The 31-2 Lumberjacks, undefeated since pre-Thanksgiving, are not awed by the Big Dance or VCU. They are this year’s 12 Seed To Be Feared. Rams pressure and pace are not uncomfortable for an SFA team that beat Northwestern State (fastest-paced team in the country) three times this year. Veteran Lumberjacks stick to their methodical gameplan, get good shots, force turnovers defensively and avoid foul trouble to spring the upset. Then they win again, in a bracket-collapse game against No. 13 seed Tulsa. America gets busy finding out what the F stands for in Stephen F. Austin. (Spoiler alert: Fuller.)
Worst Case: Here’s the dirty secret behind that shiny 31-2 record – SFA hasn’t beaten anyone in Ken Pomeroy’s top 125 all year, and nobody in his top 165 since Dec. 6. VCU is No. 12 in the Pomeroy ratings. Which means this is a quantum leap up in class from the Southland Conference, which has seen its product watered down by realignment. Lumberjacks cannot handle the Rams’ athleticism and it gets ugly early. Stephen F. Austin is bounced out of the Big Dance before anyone finds out that the F is for Fuller.
No. 4 UCLA
Best Case: Team that dazzled in Las Vegas is ready to roll in nearby San Diego. After blowing out Oregon and Stanford and upsetting Arizona, the Bruins are playing their best ball of the season at precisely the right time. Kyle Anderson wins over everyone who hasn’t watched him with his versatility. Jordan Adams is a scoring machine. Norman Powell maintains his Vegas mojo. Twenty years after being upset by Tulsa in the first round, UCLA beats the Golden Hurricane easily this time around. Then they win a donnybrook with VCU to reach the Sweet 16; upset Florida (payback for 2006 and ’07 Final Four losses); and vanquish Syracuse in the regional final. After years of doing too little in the tourney at Iowa and New Mexico, Steve Alford does plenty in his first season in Westwood. Ben Howland thinks Alford is playing way too fast and not calling enough timeouts, but nobody listens to Howland anymore. UCLA loses to Michigan State in Dallas, but the stage is set for a long-term return to prominence.
Worst Case: Alford plays way too fast and calls too few timeouts as Tulsa jumps on UCLA early. Golden Hurricane get good shots all day against indifferent UCLA defense, and make plenty of them. Tulsa focuses entire defense to limit Anderson, with good results. Wear twins wear out. Adams takes too many shots. Bruins are bum-rushed, and Howland points out that a round-of-64 loss was a fireable offense for him last year. Rest of Pac-12 goes on to have a dynamite tournament without them.
No. 13 TULSA
Best Case: Danny Manning’s first NCAA tourney team as a head coach picks up where his last NCAA tourney team as a player left off – winning games it wasn’t supposed to win. In upsetting UCLA, Golden Hurricane play the kind of defense Manning’s old coach, Larry Brown, and old boss, Bill Self, can appreciate. Tulsa packs in the paint to stop point forward Kyle Anderson, and the Bruins miss enough 3-pointers to be beaten. Team that hasn’t lost since Feb. 6 isn’t done there, beating Stephen F. Austin in a Southwest Cinderella Special round-of-32 game. Run ends in Memphis against Florida, but it’s clear that Tulsa has its next in a long line of talented coaches. As an added bonus, Oklahoma and Oklahoma State lose their first games, ceding the spotlight to the Hurricane.
Worst Case: Tulsa has a grand total of one win against teams in the field of 68, and that came on Dec. 4. And it came against No. 16 seed Texas Southern. Which means the Hurricane are in over their Golden heads against a UCLA squad that has eight victories against teams in the field. Tulsa gets in immediate and severe foul trouble, does not defend the 3-point arc adequately and cannot make enough shots to contend. Sooners and Cowboys both win multiple games. Manning makes like all the other talented Tulsa coaches who came before him and hightails it to another job.
No. 6 OHIO STATE
Best Case: Aaron Craft shuts a lot of pie holes with an excellent tournament run, leading the Buckeyes to the Final Four. Craft is a defensive demon as always, but his wayward shooting stroke actually returns. So does Lenzelle Smith’s, after its own hiatus. LaQuinton Ross continues to play like a first-round NBA talent. Shannon Scott juices up the tempo. Sam Thompson dunks alley oops. Even Ohio State’s disappearing big men show up for a few key plays here and there. With the defense a constant, the Buckeyes’ painful offense coalesces well enough to outscore Dayton, Syracuse, underdog New Mexico and Florida to reach the Final Four. Fans stop creating murals of incoming freshman linebacker Raekwon McMillan long enough to watch Ohio State beat Michigan State on TV – not to attend in person, of course; spring football is underway and there is a young secondary to obsess over. They lose in title game to Louisville, but everyone is happy – especially since Michigan lost in the round of 32.
Worst Case: Craft never makes another perimeter shot as a Buckeye, and his career ends in a dismal Thursday afternoon loss to Dayton – a school Ohio State wouldn’t dream of allowing on its regular-season schedule. Buckeyes score 44 points and shoot 31 percent from the field. It gets so bad that instead of letting assistant Greg Paulus call plays as usual, head coach Thad Matta solicits plays from the stands. From the pick-and-roll to the Picket Fence, nothing works. Ross turns pro after the loss, Michigan wins the national title – and in truly alarming news, the secondary looks bad in spring practice.
No. 11 DAYTON
Best Case: Given a shot at the in-state big dog that won’t schedule them, the Flyers take dead aim and don’t miss. Dayton hits 3s and hits the offensive glass to claim bragging rights in the state – especially after Cincinnati and Xavier both lose their first games. Luck holds and they draw 14 seed Western Michigan in the round of 32 and win that one as well, behind a triple-double by Devin Oliver. Flyers finally lose to Kansas in the Sweet 16, but it is the school’s best run in 30 years. Archie Miller can now hold his own in the coaching conversation at family get-togethers with big brother Sean (Arizona) and dad John (legendary former high school coach). City has something else to brag about beyond the First Four.
Worst Case: First Four remains the civic NCAA highlight after nervous Dayton gets crushed by veteran Ohio State. Buckeyes defense creates turnovers and blankets the Flyers’ 3-point shooters, and it’s never a ballgame. Ohio State fans taunt Dayton fans for weak showing when they finally get their shot at the flagship state school. Cincinnati and Xavier win as well and their fans chide the Flyers for being Big Dance pretenders. Archie Miller still brings little to the familial coaching table.
No. 3 SYRACUSE
Best Case: Comfortably ensconced back in the gloom of upstate New York, Orange rinse out the bad vibes of the past month and reconnect with their previous winning ways. Life returns to the offense, particularly Trevor Cooney – the designated 3-ball sharp shooter who was 9 for 51 from deep the previous seven games hits a slump-busting barrage against Western Michigan to key a blowout win. Freshened 2-3 zone is exactly what offensively challenged, round-of-32 opponent Ohio State doesn’t want to see, and the Orange win easily again. Syracuse handles no-Embiid Kansas in the Sweet 16 and beats Florida on a Tyler Ennis teardrop at the buzzer. Back in the Final Four for the second straight year, C.J. Fair says he’ll take it from there, lighting up Michigan State. The title game is Duke-Syracuse III – Winner Take All. Fair’s winning basket is not waved off, as a Duke flop results in a no-call by Tony Greene. Jim Boeheim does not feel compelled to rush the court. In fact, he’s so pleased that his smirk gives way to a smile for upwards of 30 seconds. Ennis decides to stay in school.
Worst Case: Cooney isn’t in a slump – he’s burned out after a 700-minute increase from last year to this year, and he can’t make a thing. Ennis is running on fumes as well after playing 36 minutes a game as a freshman. With the guards not hitting shots, Western Michigan focuses on frustrating Fair and blocking out. The plan works, and the Orange complete the season-end swoon with an ignominious defeat in the round of 64. Boeheim caps off the debacle with his second career ejection – and second in the last month. After 25-0 start, ‘Cuse loses six of last eight. Ennis goes pro. Boeheim retires. The snow piles are still on the ground in Syracuse.
No. 14 WESTERN MICHIGAN
Best Case: While nobody was paying attention, the Broncos quietly coalesced as the season went along. They enter the Big Dance having won 12 of their last 13, with the only loss in overtime. With a team that has learned how to win, Western Michigan has the good fortune to encounter a Syracuse team that has become quite familiar with how to lose. Streaky guard David Brown got hot from the outside late in the year and it carries over against the Orange zone. Shayne Whittington, the 6-foot-11 center, continues his late surge and holds his own against the long Syracuse interior. Coach Steve Hawkins’ sixth 20-win team at WMU is his best, as the Broncos shock the ‘Cuse for their first NCAA win since 1998. When Michigan and Michigan State are upset, the Broncos are the improbable toast of the state.
Worst Case: Winning 12 of 13 in the MAC is one thing; beating Syracuse in Buffalo is another. Sloppy ball-handling team feeds the Orange transition game, which results in a succession of easy baskets. Broncos have no one to counter the length of forwards Jerami Grant and C.J. Fair, either. Western Michigan is 23-skidoo back to Kalamazoo, where it watches both Michigan and Michigan State reach the Final Four.
No. 7 New Mexico
Best Case: College hoops devotees have been in the know on Lobos power forward Cameron Bairstow for a while, but now it’s time for his game to go viral. With the Lobos intent on not repeating last year’s first-game flop, the Aussie tears up Stanford. Then Bairstow has his way against Embiid-less Kansas – marking the first time the Lobos have ever won their first two games in the NCAA tourney. Bairstow gets plenty of help in the Sweet 16 in Memphis, in the form of Kendall Williams’ perimeter shooting and Alex Kirk’s interior banging. Ardent fan base is finally rewarded with a Final Four, and it’s even relatively nearby in Dallas. Lobos don’t win, but the fans have fun and the bandwagon gets crowded. First-year head coach Craig “Noodles” Neal becomes the most celebrated Neal in hoops since Curly, or maybe Shaquille O’. Noodles’ glorious gray mop of hair becomes trendy, damaging sales of Just For Men.
Worst Case: Mountain West Conference plummeted to tenth-toughest in the nation this year according to the Sagarin Ratings, lowest it has been since 2001. That’s not good news for the MWC champion when matched up against Stanford from the Pac-12 (Sagarin’s No. 4 conference in the land). Lobos struggle to handle versatile 4-man Dwight Powell, and do not enjoy the height advantage they’d become accustomed to in league play. Noodles has no answers and his team is eliminated in 40 minutes, depriving the Final Four of his au natural hair excellence.
No. 10 Stanford
Best Case: Upperclass-laden Cardinal have been waiting for this chance their entire careers and seize it. Behind guard Chasson Randle and stretch-four Dwight Powell, Stanford poses matchup problems for New Mexico and has the height to combat the long Lobos. After pulling that upset, Stanford gets a pregame pep talk from alum Richard Sherman, who cannot believe the Cardinal are being challenged by a sorry team like Kansas. Suitably angry and inspired, Stanford pulls the shocker and reaches the Sweet 16. Tiger Woods, Andrew Luck and Condi Rice hop on the bandwagon by then. Cardinal don’t beat Syracuse, but easily win the VIP seating competition.
Worst Case: Tip time in St. Louis is 11:40 a.m. MT, which is tough for the Lobos – but that’s 10:40 PT, which is even worse for the Cardinal – and their Tree, who at tipoff may still be drunk from the previous night. Stanford is slow to get going in a quiet, flat gym. Lobos, who have been in the NCAAs the previous two years, have the tournament experience edge over first-time-in-a-long-time Cardinal. Bad start leads to big deficit that is never overcome, and Dawkins seems to grow more pinched and drawn as the game goes along. Sherman, Tiger, Luck and Condi sit this one out.
No. 2 KANSAS
Best Case: Andrew Wiggins and Perry Ellis do the first-week work, getting the Jayhawks out of St. Louis with two routine victories that are made all the more enjoyable by watching Wichita State and Kansas State lose in the same arena. Then, as if touched by a faith healer, Joel Embiid rises up from infirmary to once again play like the No. 1 draft pick many think he will be. Scoffing at back pain, Embiid lays it all on the line for the school he will spend another six weeks attending. He blocks shots. He dunks. He passes with skill. He shoots with touch. When he grimaces, overwrought Kansas fans grimace with him – but he does not grimace often. His back is back, he is back, and the Jayhawks are back, defeating Syracuse and Florida to reach the Final Four. Once there, Kansas defeats long-shot North Carolina – getting in one more chance to beat up on Ol’ Roy. The national title game brings the season full circle, as Wiggins and Jabari Parker duel again with the same result – Jayhawks win. Bill Self signs a lifetime deal and lines up three more killer recruiting classes.
Worst Case: Karma comes home to roost on KU fans for their unholy alliance with Kentucky in St. Louis. After rooting for a program they normally despise to beat both Kansas State and Wichita State, everything falls apart on the Jayhawks in Memphis. Embiid’s back does not progress and he does not play in the Sweet 16. With no one to protect the rim, Syracuse drives with impunity. Wiggins cannot get to the basket against the Orange zone, and Ellis cannot get free inside. Kansas guards make no perimeter shots. Season ends there, while Kentucky goes on to win the national title and thanks KU fans for the early-round support. Self decides to try the NBA, everyone goes pro and Cliff Alexander asks out of his letter of intent. And Charlie Weis is still the football coach.
No. 15 EASTERN KENTUCKY
Best Case: Playing at the same site as Kentucky, the little school from 20 minutes down I-75 finds itself with thousands of adopted Big Blue fans in St. Louis. And then there are the Wichita State fans, pulling like crazy for anyone to beat the detested Jayhawks. Colonels give it their best shot for 30 minutes, hanging in there behind a 3-point shooting barrage by guard Glenn Cosey. EKU and its new fan base at least tease the nation into expecting a shocker before relenting, which isn’t bad for a program that has never won an NCAA tournament game. Center Eric Stutz earns points for having the most hair of any player in St. Louis, even if he doesn’t have the most points in the box score.
Worst Case: Big Blue fans and Wichita State backers are still out pre-partying by the time the Colonels tip off Friday afternoon, and Kansas applies the sleeper hold before they arrive and have a chance to rally around Eastern Kentucky’s cause. Cosey goes 1-for-11 from 3-point range, and Stutz earns more notoriety for being dunked on by Andrew Wiggins than for his hair. Colonels drop to 0-8 all-time in the Big Dance and quietly adjourn back to Richmond, Ky.